Mark Brindal is a former South Australian Liberal minister, an academic, a public policy consultant and a commentator. That is how he describes himself in his recent Flat White Spectator piece in which Brindal urges Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to ‘break his shackles’, ‘assert his authority’ and ‘lead in the direction that Australia expected of him’. Brindal sees Turnbull as through and through a ‘political progressive’ and in the World According to Mark the way in which Turnbull can turn around his lousy poll results is – wait for it – by reneging on the unequivocal promise the Coalition made at the last election to require a successful win in a plebiscite before Parliament would legislate to allow same sex marriage.
Throw in a busload of jargon about ‘getting smart’, ‘breaking free’ and ‘crashing through or crashing’ and there you have the supposed secret that will ensure a big Coalition win at the next election.
But let’s just think for a moment about this advice to Turnbull to ‘discover the person he really is’ (which for many of us are the six scariest words you’ll hear other than ‘the government is here to help’). Brindal means that Team Turnbull should hold a conscience vote and then legislate for gay marriage. Now to my way of thinking that would be a titanic disaster, and I say that as someone who really doesn’t care one way or another about this gay-marriage issue. But I really, really care about politicians and parties who make clear and unequivocal promises and then casually cast them aside. That sort of insouciance by the Republicans in the US is a key reason people voted for Trump. That sort of prevaricating about a clear promise by the Tories when it came to the Lisbon Treaty is why voters distrusted David Cameron, and why he’s no longer PM.
It’s a terrible idea to do what Brindal suggests. You could kiss goodbye to any lingering trust there might still be between the party base and its Liberal political operatives.
Now the Brindalian response to that sort of criticism of mine is twofold. Firstly, he tells us that upwards of 80% of Aussies now accept gay marriage. He then inflates that more or less arbitrary figure into ‘the national will’ – as though he’s been reading too much Rousseau and wants to work in something not unlike the Frenchman’s fabricated notion of the ‘general will’. But this unspoken Brindalian reliance on polls is meaningless fluff. If that were our test then Australia would today be a republic. ‘Why actually vote given that we can point to some polls that lean our way’ is not a substitute for democratic decision-making. Moreover, polls get things wrong. Witness Brexit. Witness Mr. Trump.
The second ploy Brindal marshals is to point out that this will be a conscience vote. But so what? That’s not a good thing when your party made a specific promise to me, and to all voters, that it would precisely not take that route. It’s nothing other than a lie. It kills voters’ confidence in the political class, which I can assure former South Australian Minister Brindal is at an all time low.
Let’s generalise for a moment. Is the argument being put here that whenever you can’t get a bill through the Senate that you are free to do something else, to break the promise you made to the voters at the election? Or is this ‘reasoning’ only applicable to issues that Brindal happens to care about? Personally, if the Libs are going to lie to voters then I’d prefer that they started by slashing the money flowing to the ABC, killing the RET down to zero, and getting us out of the Paris Accord. Or here’s an idea: honour the promise you made in 2013 and get rid of 18C lock, stock and two stinking barrels.
It gets worse of course. You see, if you take the pool of Australians who’d be happy for this government to ditch the plebiscite and move straight to double-crossing the voters by holding a ‘conscience vote’ – where, naturally, it is the consciences of MPs that count for everything and the consciences of 24 million other Australians that count for nothing – then I think Mr. Brindal will find that support for such a move will not break down evenly across party lines. A lot more Labor people and Greens will welcome this move. Now to be abundantly clear, I mean the lefties will welcome this move; I don’t mean that they’ll vote for the Libs because of it.
As for Liberal Party supporters, the ones who vote Liberal and campaign for the party, well I very much doubt more than a third of them support this ploy. In effect Brindal is roping in Laborites and Greenies to buttress a political move that will tear apart his own party. In the philosophy of psychiatry they have a word for that. It’s ‘bonkers’.
Basically, what you’re being fed by Mr. Mark Brindal is a Mark Textor worldview on steroids. It’s premised on this idea that long-time conservative Liberal voters can be lied to and sold down the river because they have nowhere else to go. Personally, I don’t think the evidence is there to back that up, not after the last election. Nor am I much of a fan of the claim that ‘political progressives’ like Brindal’s seeming hero, Malcolm Turnbull, aren’t too great a threat to the conservative base because the party room will always constrain him (if not on his promise on same-sex marriage then on more ‘renewables’ madness, the republic, multicultural genuflecting, whatever). But I don’t want a leader who only brings in policies I think are correct because at the moment he lacks the numbers to do otherwise. That implies that if he won a big majority he would no longer be constrained. So I can’t hope for my own side to get a big win. You see the last thing I want is for Malcolm to discover his true progressive self. That’s just code for ‘Turnbull will and should move more to the left’.
Last point: I have no idea what per centage of Australians support same-sex marriage and neither does Brindal. That’s the point of having the plebiscite. But if it really is 80% then why does any pro-same-sex marriage person fear the plebiscite? There is no answer to that. So get on with it.
The above is the submission of Quadrant contributor James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, to the Inquiry on Freedom of Speech in Australia